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Old 02-11-2015, 01:10 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Violin bass guitars

Violinmaker Karl Höfner in 1887 founded Karl Höfner GmbH & Co. KG in the city of Schönbach making violins, violas and cellos and became the largest manufacturer of stringed instruments in Germany. Sons Josef and Walter joined their father in the business around 1920. After WW2, the company left Schönbach which was now part of Czechoslovakia and settled in Möhrendorf in Bavaria and then from there built factories in Bubenreuth, West Germany.

Karl Höfner (1864-1955)

With the rise of rock and roll in the 50s and 60s, Höfner instruments, under Walter’s guidance, began to make guitars and bass guitars which were distributed throughout Europe by Selmer centered in London. As a result, young British musicians had abundant access to Höfner instruments as well as Framus, another instrument-maker out of Schönbach.

In 1956, Höfner released the 500/1 model electric bass guitar. It was designed by Walter and had a violin-shaped body.

1958 Höfner violin bass.

Although an unusual shape for a bass, to be sure, Höfner did not invent the design. The first violin-shaped bass guitar was issued in 1952 by Gibson called the EB-1. It was semi-hollow with a painted-on f-hole. It came with a long end peg that could be attached to the body so that it could be played upright. I doubt anybody ever used it that way, however. The EB-1 was discontinued within a short time but reissued in a modified form in the ‘70s when I played one. I found it perfectly functional with good tone and had nice balance but, again, they were discontinued.

Gibson EB-1.

Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s other violin-shaped bass guitars came on the market. Japanese manufacturer Aria issued one called the Diamond body.

Aria Diamond

Another Japanese manufacturer issued the Emperador E-302. They are semi-rare basses but those who own them tend to treasure them. They are, by all accounts, very good basses.

Red Emperador E-302

Sunburst Emperador.
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Old 02-11-2015, 01:17 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Univox also made a popular violin bass. In fact, Victor Wooten’s first bass guitar was a Univox violin he was already playing at age 5. He still has it.

A violin bass put out by Eko. I’m fairly certain I saw Les Claypool of Primus playing one of these.

These Höfner basses were not expensive basses but very cheap. They were made for beginners who needed a quick-&-dirty bass to fill in the bottom. They went through a number of design changes from the 50s to the 60s. In fact, they would probably not have survived through the 60s if not for Paul. Today’s 500/1 is a fairly high-end instrument. Höfner had to make improvements because so many discerning bassists wanted one due to Paul and Höfner knew they couldn’t sell them the cheap piece of crap the real 500/1 actually is. A real early 60s 500/1 is much flimsier. Its construction is really rather shoddy. But then it was priced very cheap maybe $50 back then. As of a few years ago, they were $1800 (I bought mine for about a $1000 because the music store I patronize always gives me discounts).

One area where Höfner really improved the newer basses over the early 60s models was where the neck joins the body. As this photo shows, the joint is much more robust. On the original old Höfners, this was a very flimsy joint.

When the Beatles first started, the bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, used a Höfner full-bodied President bass with money he had won after entering some of his paintings in an art contest. He was not a musician but his art school friend, John, and bandmate, Paul, were guitarists and they needed someone to play bass. They pushed Stu to buy a Höfner because, according to Paul in an interview, all the working class English bands used them (although Bill Wyman of the Stones used a Framus).

The Höfner 500/5 CT bass guitar used by Stu Sutcliffe. It is known as the President bass.

When Stu wasn’t playing his bass, Paul and John, often picked it up and played it. Paul, being left-handed, had to play it upside down because Stu had it strung for right-handed play. But both Paul and John became fairly good on bass—both were already better than Stu who didn’t really play it but mimicked playing it by keeping his back to the audience as much as possible.

The Silver Beatles.

Stu’s lack of chops as well as his affair with Astrid Kirchener began to grate on Paul who felt that Stu wasn’t trying enough and that it was affecting the band. One night, onstage in Hamburg, Germany, Paul yelled something at Stu after he missed a cue although no one is sure what it was that Paul yelled but Pete Best thought he heard Paul mention something about Astrid. Stu lost it, tossed his bass down and went at Paul. Both guys fought onstage while the crowd watched bewildered. John signaled to Pete and George to just keep playing, which they did.

The following week when then band met for practice, Stu announced he was quitting the band. Paul tried to placate Stu by saying the fight was just two dumb, drunk guys blowing off steam but Stu wasn’t mad about that. He said he knew his playing was terrible and that he was holding the band back and that he really missed his art and wanted to get back to painting. In essence, he wanted to leave the band, marry Astrid and get back to his art—he was quite a good painter. It was a moment of truth that no one could deny—there was no place for Stu in the band. Stu handed his bass to Paul and said he could use it until they found a new bass-player but he was not to re-string it for left-handed play.

So the quintet became a quartet with Paul playing Stu’s bass onstage holding it upside down. Paul had been a guitarist with the band but his cheap axe fell apart on him and he had no money to buy a new guitar. The bar they played in, the Star Club, had an old piano on the stage so Paul played that and was getting to be pretty good on it. He decided that he would switch over to being the band’s keyboardist.

He believed that the band would start auditioning bassists and he could get back to the piano. This did not happen, however, so Paul mentioned it to John asking when they were going to start auditioning bassists. John told Paul point-blank that he was now the band’s bassist. They didn’t need three guitars, didn’t need a pianist (indeed how were they to transport one around from gig to gig?) but they now had to have a bassist. Paul refused to play the bass because the chicks didn’t care about the bass guy only the guitar guys. He asked John why didn’t he or George play it. John said that George had to be on lead guitar, John had just bought a new Rickenbacker 326 and Paul was the only one who had no axe. So either he play the bass or they would find someone else.

Paul knew he was the odd man out—both George and Pete backed John. They thought Paul should play bass—he was pretty good at it, after all. So Paul decided take up the bass permanently. But he couldn’t keep Stu’s bass forever so he began to look for a bass. The thing for Paul was nobody made left-handed guitars and he knew when he got a bass he would probably have to turn it upside down. So wanted one with a body that wouldn’t look “daft” when played upside down. He wanted a Fender P-bass or Precision bass which were made in left-handed models but American instruments at this time were hard to get in Europe and therefore very expensive and the left-hander would have to be specially ordered if one could be delivered at all and the price was far beyond what Paul could afford.

He went to Hessy’s Music Store in Hamburg and saw a Höfner 500/1 violin bass in the window. It was perfect. The symmetrical body could be played upside down without anyone noticing and the price was very cheap. Indeed, the bass itself is very cheap in quality but it was a bass and Paul needed it so he bought it.

What I am not clear on is how Paul got the bass modified for left-handed play. It is not a left-handed guitar simply because, at that time, Höfner didn’t make lefty guitars and this is verified by both Tony Sheridan and Pete Best. Paul’s is definitely modified because the headstock has a long side and a short side:

If the guitar is held rightside-up, the long side of the headstock is on the bottom as shown above. But look at Paul’s below. The long side is on the top. So the guitar is indeed upside down. Someone moved the pickguard and controls, drilled new holes, filled in the old ones and then repainted it. I don’t know if Hessy’s had someone who did that work or if they referred Paul to someone who did it or if Paul found him on his own. What is undeniable is that somebody did that work.

By 1963, Paul’s ’61 bass was a wreck. The rigors of the road had worn it out. It no longer stayed in tune. Paul wrote to Höfner for a new bass, this one was made left-handed for Paul (nowadays, one can order lefty Höfners). At least that’s the story I heard. If we look at the headstock, we see that even the new bass is upside down. So either Paul bought the new bass and had it modified or Höfner turned the bass upside-down for Paul but it is still a righty body that’s modified to a lefty.

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Old 02-11-2015, 01:22 PM   #3 (permalink)
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How do we know the difference between ’61 and ’63 basses? The spacing between the pickups. Paul’s ‘61 bass had closer-spaced pickups (this model is now listed in the Höfner catalog as the “Cavern” bass). The ‘63 bass had pickups spaced farther apart (now listed as the 500/1).

In 1964, Paul got his ’61 bass refurbished and used it for special projects including the rooftop concert during which it was stolen. Paul continues to use the ’63 Höfner to this day but mainly for live performances. In studio, he prefers to use his 4001S Rickenbacker and his P-bass (which was used on the Band on the Run album). He did take his Rickenbacker onstage for a while but claimed it was so heavy that he couldn’t move around much but the Höfner is feather-light and easy to jump around with and besides that “people expect to see it.”

So how do the controls work?

There are two volume knobs—one for each pickup. With all three toggle switches engaged, both pickups are deactivated. BASS ON activates the front pick up and deactivates the back pickup. TREBLE ON activates the back pickup but deactivates the front pickup. So if both switches are turned on simultaneously, both pickups are cut deactivated. RHYTHM/SOLO will work when either or both pickups are active. When BASS ON and TREBLE ON switches are both off, both puckups are active but have a less beefy sound. One can then isolate the pickups by using the volume knobs or, of course, you can mix both signals as you desire. RHYTHM/SOLO can be in either position during this time also and will function. So you have a lot of ways to vary your sound with this bass. It’s surprisingly functional. Just make sure TREBLE ON and BASS ON are not engaged simultaneously or you have just turned both pickups off.

Despite the fame Paul has brought Höfner and has made the 500/1 one of the world’s most sought after instruments, Paul and the Höfner corporation have had very little contact with one another over the years. One would think that Paul would have sat on its board of directors or something by now and that Höfner would have issued a Paul signature 500/1 but this has never happened and probably never will. They do, however, advertise the 500/1 as “the Beatle bass” but Paul is not mentioned by name. Strange that Epiphone does issue a Paul McCartney signature acoustic guitar but Höfner does not issue a Paul signature anything but that’s how things are sometimes.

A lefty 500/1 autographed by Paul that sold for $10,000.

Once again, the headstock is upside-down so Höfner does not make true lefty necks but simply flip the guitar body over and do it up for the left-handed player. Makes sense. It would be unnecessarily expensive to make true lefty necks when this works as well. In fact, the company got the idea from Paul.

Paul shows a curious Ed Sullivan how his bass works.
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